Last night I went out to dinner with some friends. There we were, eating, drinking, chatting and generally having a good time. Except for one of us – who shall remain unnamed out of sheer generosity of spirit – who spent all his time checking his mobile phone for messages and then typing out long replies, completely ignoring the real-life person sitting opposite who was trying to conduct a conversation.
After about an hour of this, I couldn’t resist any longer. When he next began tapping out a message even as another friend was in the middle of telling an interesting story, I piped up indignantly, “I’m sorry, but clearly the people you’re messaging are more interesting than all of us right here. Perhaps you should be having dinner with them instead?”
To his credit, the gentleman was suitably abashed at being called out on his bad behaviour. He turned a deep red, muttered unconvincingly about how it was his daughter on the phone. He then put his mobile away ostentatiously, promising that he would not check it again in the course of the evening. And yet, when he thought that nobody was looking, I caught him checking out the display surreptitiously, to make sure that he hadn’t missed on any calls or smses.
My irritation – and that of my friends – notwithstanding, in the cold light of day I have to admit that none of us can afford to be overly judgemental about these things. And I am the first to confess that I am as much sinned against as sinning. In fact, it was only a week ago that an old friend, with whom I was catching up over lunch, accused me of being a Crackberry addict because I kept checking on the delivery of some urgent emails I had sent out.
So, I guess I shouldn’t be holding forth about the trespasses of others. But you know what, I can’t resist.
Honestly, what is it about mobile phones and us? Why are we always looking at them anxiously, worried that we may have missed some important call during the nanosecond when we weren’t looking? Why do we seem unable to ever disconnect? Why can we never switch off completely? Why have we developed such a symbiotic relationship with our phones that we appear unable to exist without them? Why are we so addicted to our mobiles that we suffer withdrawal symptoms on the rare occasions we are parted from them?
I still remember the feeling of utter helplessness that engulfed me when I lost my mobile while on holiday a year or so ago. It felt as if I had been disconnected from life itself. Nobody knew how to get in touch with me. Having lost my phone book, I didn’t know how to call anyone. After casting about desperately, I was reduced to emailing people to send me their phone numbers. And all the time, I was in agony, fretting about all the important calls that I was undoubtedly missing, convinced that there must be some work or family emergency just when I had been rendered incommunicado.
So, don’t get me wrong. Yes, I understand just how important mobile phones are to all of us. You can call the airport from the car to check on the status of your flight. You can keep tabs on your kids no matter where they are. In a medical emergency or in case of an accident, you don’t have to go around looking for a phone booth to summon help. Your elderly parents can get in touch with you at all times. And after a late night out as you take a taxi home, it is a reassuring feeling to have a mobile phone in your purse so that you can call a friend if anything untoward happens.
I know all this, and yet the tyranny of telephones is beginning to get me a bit miffed. Is it really necessary to take calls when you are in a business meeting? Do you have to have loud conversations on your mobile in a restaurant where everyone else is trying to have a quiet meal? Must the loud ring of your phone disturb everyone else in cinemas, at the theatre, or even during a book reading? Can you not switch your phone off even when you are visiting a sick friend in hospital?
Surely, life went on even before the mobile phone was invented? We managed to catch flights on time, make restaurant reservations, keep in touch with friends and family, even check our email, long before the mobile became an essential tool of modern life.
So why do people act as if they can’t figure out how we ever coped in its absence? After all, it was only a decade ago that we managed perfectly well without it. Could we really have become so dependent in this short space of time?
I guess the short answer to that is yes. But sometimes it makes sense to do without something you feel is essential to your life – if only to prove to yourself that you can. So maybe it is time to ditch the mobile phone – one hour at a time.
I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to go cold turkey just yet. And I’m guessing that nor are you.